The Prometheus myth can be interpreted as consciousness being a burden. Camus used the myth of Sisyphus to debate the same issue. It is the theme of a famous speech from Hamlet. Heidegger talks of being thrown into the world, of being as that which being is a problem. The story in Genesis, of eating of the tree of knowledge and the fall, that is being forced out into the world to labour, can be interpreted as the discovery of self-consciousness and its dangers.

Would a conscious computer have even the possibility of 'conciousness being a burden'?


Why not?

What would (relevantly) distinguish a "conscious computer" from a "conscious person"? Why would a silicon-based consciousness escape Thrownness where a carbon-based consciousness cannot?

It would seem to me that absent a strong argument to the contrary, any consciousness would be subject to the burdens of consciousness, by definition.

  • I don't understand what you mean by definition: Why should we assume that there is only one kind of conciousness? – Mozibur Ullah Apr 24 '12 at 23:38
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    Because we haven't done anything yet to distinguish between any varieties of consciousness. That's why I said "absent an argument to the contrary." – Michael Dorfman Apr 25 '12 at 6:55
  • Ok, you're wielding Occams razor here. Is the consciousness of a bat different from that of a human? One may dispute that a bat is conscious at all, personally I prefer to think that its a difference in quality. Heidegger may have spoken of being thrown into the world, but there's also the consciousness of being thrown out of the world,ie mortality. It may be possible in the future to lengthen appreciably the human life-scale, but its not going to happen anytime soon; but its easy to imagine that a conscious computer – Mozibur Ullah Jan 3 '13 at 21:48
  • (assuming that's a possibility) is far more likely to have a lifetime extending into millions of years. Surely that is going to have a profound affect of some kind? – Mozibur Ullah Jan 3 '13 at 21:49
  • Wouldn't the capability to do so require a one level upper consciousness ? I mean, to shutdown some emotional/wandering thought subroutines , wouldn't a machine requires a master subroutine capable of such judgement and action ? – user2411 Jan 6 '13 at 11:01

Maybe I'm not understanding the question correctly, but if by "problem" you mean that the computer would not "like" being conscious, then I think that might have to depend on whether it were also programmed with a self-preservation instinct.

Even something conscious, if it doesn't value self-preservation, probably wouldn't care to be. We can know this to some extent by observing that conscious and rational but severely depressed humans often choose not to be -- so the desire to be or not to be is an instinctual one, not a conscious one.

At the same time, if the consciousness isn't affected by cognitive dissonance the way we are, it might not even care that it can't decide either way.

  • I think that saying that opting out is an instinct rather than a conscious choice is, mildly put, not unproblematic. – iphigenie Nov 15 '12 at 15:51
  • @iphigenie Care to explain? – Rei Miyasaka Nov 15 '12 at 20:29
  • You just said that millions of people, who themselves thought they are making a rational choice, killed themselves instinctively. I don't see why someone who acts contrary to the self-preservation instinct can't be in one's right mind. That is a reduction of human freedom you did not sufficiently explain. – iphigenie Nov 16 '12 at 9:20
  • @iphigenie Almost all other species, conscious or not, act in ways that ensure survival. It's a product of evolution, not of consciousness. Therefore, a conscious machine, not having been created by evolution, may not immediately value life the way we do -- their own or anyone else's. I never "reduced human freedom"; we nevertheless value the lives of sentient individuals because the overwhelming choice is to live. In effect, we valuing the wills of sentients, and only in extension, their lives. Happily that happens to work out in terms of evolution, because otherwise, we'd all be dead by now. – Rei Miyasaka Nov 16 '12 at 20:13
  • @ReiMiyasaka +1 I think you're on the right track here. A fundamental difference between evolved life and designed life-like things is that evolved life has the will-to-live (among other things) strongly ingrained. In a sense, computers (of conventional design) don't have the instincts that cause humans some of their conflicts/problems. – obelia Jan 5 '13 at 18:32

Your question depends on three ingredients: a sound definition of consciousness, a sound philosophical anthropology, and a sound definition of "computer". Given those, one can begin answering questions such as

  1. why do human beings experience existential angst?
  2. what is the relationship between computer and human being?
  3. is consciousness necessary to have an encounter with existential questions?
  4. can computers experience existential angst or at least run into existential questions?
  5. can computers be conscious?
  6. what is the relationship between reason/understanding and consciousness?

These aren't easy questions, and neither is yours, IMO. And since this is an interdisciplinary question, one would need to reconcile the various languages used in each domain. My cursory answer flow from some of my positions or tendencies of which I am aware. I avoid the common tendency to anthropomorphize computers or the wild and presumptuous oversimplifications of reductionism.

One source of this angst may be the awareness of one's radical freedom. Another source may be the futility of one's actions as death renders one and everything naught. In the case of freedom, if we accept that humans beings are free or capable of being free, it is clear that computers are not free in this sense, as they are fully deterministic machines able only to do what they are programmed to do, whether directly or indirectly. Their actions are rooted not in a finality of their own, but the finality of their human creators and programmers. In another sense, they are free as long as they are not impeded in executing instructions, but this is not the kind of freedom human beings experience. In second case (the futility of all action), this again cannot escape teleology if it is to make rational sense. A futile action is one which brings no (lasting) benefit, which itself requires that some desire be the motive force. Computers do not desire; they only execute instructions. Since computers remain idle without instructions put into it, then their nature is to execute instructions which precludes autonomousness. One can program a computer to perform certain actions once certain conditions are met, but I am far from convinced that the lead from computer to human being can be so easily made. It has also never been shown that a computer can reason.

Now since a computer does not desire, it follows that even if a computer could come to hold some representation of such a preposition that could produce a condition wherein the categorical futility of action could alter the course of instructions, in the best case it would only cease to act. But a computer must be first programmed in such a way that it would act on such a preposition in such a way that it would cease acting i.e. executing instructions (we could equally program it to play chess). The meaning of such prepositions is lost on the computer. It does not act by virtue of the meaning, but by virtue of the programming.

Enter consciousness. Does consciousness entail autonomy, understanding, meaning or reason? That's affording a computer quite a bit, and its not all that clear what they could mean or how they could exist outside of the human context. Regardless, one must ask "what could a computer be conscious of?" and "how is it relevant to this problem?".

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